More and more companies are implementing socially conscious workplace policies and are free to do so, as long as no discrimination occurs.In an article published Workplace Magazine, Bass, Berry & Sims attorney Tim Garrett examined the legality of company implementation of socially conscious policies in the workplace.

More and more companies are implementing socially conscious policies on topics ranging from banning the use of plasticware to refusing to reimburse employees for meals that include meat or are otherwise non-vegan. Companies are generally free to implement these types of policies, as long as employees are not unlawfully discriminated against as part of the policy.

“Title VII of the Civil Rights Act protects employees from discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex and national origin, and the American with Disabilities Act protects employees with disabilities; the Age Discrimination in Employment Act prohibits age discrimination. But there is no employment law protecting an employee’s right to use plastic,” said Tim.

However, while employers may have good intentions when implementing such policies, they should take note that not every employee may find the policy necessary or appropriate. For example, WeWork, a shared workspaces provider, announced in 2018 that the company would no longer reimburse employees for meals that included red meat, poultry or pork. As with plasticware use, there is no law entitling employees to the right to eat meat, so technically the policy is legal, though in some instances it could run afoul of stringent state laws on reimbursing employees who spend their own funds for business purposes. But, regardless of legality, the policies may not always be advisable.

“A principled decision often sees the bigger vision of work as an attempt to cultivate deeper meaning beyond a cost-benefit economic analysis. Such decisions can have a powerful positive impact on the workplace,” said Tim. “But, the market-based approach, the view that we should be socially conscious because it is good for business and a great marketing strategy, can certainly backfire. It is impossible to promote selflessness by touting its selfish benefits.”

The full article, “The Precarious Legalities of Socially Conscious Workplace Policies,” was published in the May/June 2019 issue of Workforce Magazine and is available online.